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Twentieth-Century Glassmakers

The Translucent Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Glassmakers Offer Collectors a Shimmering Array of Choices
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 2)

At the time, Tiffany's works were popular both in America and, surprisingly, in Europe, where many people still considered America to be a provincial, boorish outpost. Tiffany exhibited in the Paris Galléry L'Art Nouveau, alongside Gallé and Daum. He was the first American artist to achieve international stature.

By the early 1920s, the elaborate designs of the Art Nouveau style had run their course and were decried as excessively ornate. Gallé had died in 1904, and although his firm continued to produce glass, its artisans had lost the distinctive touch that characterized his designs. Tiffany produced virtually no work after 1918, although his studios remained open for another 10 years. Daum was one of the firms that made the transition from Art Nouveau to the harder-edged lines of Art Deco, in which curves gave way to angles, in a series of large, deeply etched vases in handsome blues and greens, as well as other wares.

But the undisputed--and much resented--champion of Art Deco glass was Rene Lalique, a French jewelry designer turned glass designer. Lalique was an early exponent of the Art Nouveau handcrafted improvisational techniques, and was among the first jewelers to substitute semiprecious stones for diamonds. By 1904, he had become interested in glass. Initially, he worked within elaborate molds, using the lost-wax (or cire perdue) method to create vases and other objects that featured decorative elements in high relief. He made a wax mold, encased it in plaster, drilled a few holes into the bottom, and heated the mold until the wax drained out. He then poured molten glass into the mold. When the mold cooled, it was broken and the vase was removed. In some cases, the piece was then stained to highlight the design work.

The results were astonishing. Works made from this process appear frosted. They invariably have a luminesence and an almost velvety, textured feel to them. In one piece, owned by David Weinstein, you can see the artisan's fingerprint in the surface of a covered dish. The details of these works are remarkably fine, the images in relief deeply sculpted. One vase suggests the later surrealist-tinged works of M. C. Escher, an artist known for his eye-confounding etchings, as dozens of fish heads jut straight out from the vase's surface. These cire perdue works are among the most coveted forms of turn-of-the-century glass, and their prices can exceed $100,000. Just this past March, a lost-wax vase sold for $409,500 at Christie's New York, the highest amount ever paid at an auction for a Lalique work.

But by 1910 Lalique had largely given up the technique and had started making straight mold-blown and cast-mold designs. Gallé, Daum and Tiffany had also created mass-produced pieces as the demand for their work intensified. Gallé's factory could knock out many vases of etched cameo glass a day, with perfectly attractive but somewhat undistinctive patterns and effects. The same was true of Daum and Tiffany. Lalique's output, however, was limited exclusively to the molded and pressed glass.

While there was virtually no hands-on detailing of these works, they were quite accomplished. Lalique managed to achieve a crispness in the details, which ran from bands of nude women in polished relief set on a vase to serpents, fish and antelope--staple images of the Art Deco period. Quality was consistent, and the value of an item was determined by its color and its rarity: an opalescent white Formose vase with a fish pattern might sell for $2,000, while a striking red or green piece would be worth $8,000 to $10,000 today.

Prices vary substantially for works by Tiffany as well. His shades come in different sizes, for floor or table lamps, and color is a key factor, notes Harry Wallace of the Lillian Nassau Galléry in New York. "Certainly a blue dragonfly [lamp shade] is more popular than a yellow dragonfly or a green dragonfly," he says, although brilliant shades of any color can go at a premium. While Tiffany's more easily found shades and bases go for $40,000 to $100,000, his vases and smaller works sell for between $1,000 and $15,000. With Gallé and Daum, the handcrafted works of art glass can easily sell for more than $50,000 and go as high as $1 million. Naturally, you pay for beauty, execution and distinctiveness. But the handsome, acid-etched works of cameo glass can generally be had for as little as $5,000 to $10,000.

Key considerations in choosing are condition (it should be flawless, with no cracks or chips), your plans for it (how the item will fit in with your home or office) and what type of illumination you'll use. Thick-walled vases and lamps are dark and lifeless unless they're properly lit, either from underneath or with the light casting down into them. Some collectors place small lights inside the vessels themselves to highlight their incredible range of colors and effects.

As is true of any antique, there are fakes in art glass. Telltale signs vary, but would-be art-glass collectors should buy only from well-established galleries. Any decent dealer or auction-house specialist will be able to help you develop your eye, which comes simply from viewing and holding hundreds of works of art. Barbara Deisroth, of the 20th Century Decorative Works of Art department at Sotheby's, understands just how essential touch is. "I respond to a painting," she says, "but when I pick up a piece I get a better sense of the time, of the period, of the people who used it and the quality."

These are the things that make glass distinctive. While paintings can be exquisite, and a photograph or a print might be a wonderful document of an artist's vision, a finely made work in glass is sculptural and radiant, a world in itself, full of mystery and beauty.

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